All through my twenties I had two terrors: that I was going to have to get some sort of regular job, and that I had no real gift for poetry. I still live in the shadow of the latter, a huge black bird hovering at various heights above me, though at least it's not perched on my chest when I wake every morning. I'm used to it, have learned to work under its relentless arc and appetite, and would be worried if it suddenly went away. The former, though, dolor of pad and paper-weight, domain of those the martyrs call the world, can still cause me to wake in a dead sweat. I think of telemarketing in Seattle, filing in Buffalo, tending the grounds of a nursing home in Abilene, and what comes over me is not despair but absolute blankness. "The only choice," Camus writes at the wizened old age of twenty-four, "is of the most aesthetically satisfying form of suicide: marriage, and a forty-hour work week, or a revolver."
I've never experienced real poverty, not the sort of soul-killing privation that you read about in Celine or Orwell or Dostoevsky. The only time I was ever desperately short of money was in Morocco, where the combination of weeks of hard travel, a transportation strike, and my own stupidity left me with four dollars and a very high fever. An American in Tangier took pity on me and gave me enough money to get to Gibralter, where I convinced British Airways to fly me to London (I had a ticket from Barcelona). It was a miserable few days, but you know you're not in any real danger so long as what's happening to you still seems to be "experience."
The only time I've ever had too much money was in Prague. I was teaching, ironically, at the Prague School of Economics, which, because it was the year after the Revolution, and because the school had been a bastion of Communism, was quite a confused and confusing place. I was paid by a fat hand that exploded out of a little slot at the end of ten thousand dark hallways, in unstacked cash, as if there were simply a huge barrel of it just beyond the wall. The money was worthless outside of what was then still Czechoslovakia.
A week before I was to leave the hand inexplicably paid me several fistfulls more than my usual salary, which I could never spend all of anyway. But in a city where at the time there was nothing to buy, and for a man who was just developing what's turned into a full-blown phobia of owning things, the money meant only a few days of frenetic shopping misery. Finally, after overpaying for a meal and realizing that, not only did it not matter, but that it actually felt pretty good, I gave the whole pile to my weird, sweet landlord, Pane Hnilicka, whose only English words, which he would say with uncomprehending enthusiasm at random moments, were for the first time all year apt: "Lucky Weekend!"
I was in love with a woman who was constantly discovering cash in her pockets. Though we were often broke, this didn't "count" for her, and had to always be used for something impractical, something fun. Gathering the laundry, she'd make a little pile of treasure and declare, always with the same elated surprise, that we were going to a movie, going to the zoo, going out for lunch. The habit reveals something essential about her character, its careful carelessness. And that it's taken me a strong dose of solitude to realize the charm in that habit reveals something essential about mine.
After college I spent a couple of summers as a tennis pro--not to be confused with a professional tennis player--at a posh club on Long Island. My sugar daddy was a man I'll call Mr. Cluck, whose family owned much of Manhattan. He was probably in his late seventies, but still plenty vigorous to play tennis, of a sort, every morning from 7:30 TO 9:00.
It was my job to hit with him, a lucrative but delicate and exhausting transaction, because it was quite clear that I was to hit it perfectly to his forehand every time, run down even his wildest shots, and never, never presume to offer him instruction. Harder, he would yell, harder, with a frenzied glee that at the time seemed to me a bit odd, and that in retrospect seems really odd.
Midway through my second summer, when I was living in a mansion with Louis XIV furniture and vaguely pornographic topiary, I began to lose heart. I hustled a bit, playing some of the club's juniors, who would blithely sign chits for my fee, "double-or-nothing" matches with a racquetball racket or left-handed. And at Mr. Cluck, who each day drove to the courts in a different vintage car, who never took off his silly tennis vest while I sweated through three changes of shirts, and who was constantly forgetting my name, I began to take aim.
One morning he came to the net. This in itself wasn't unusual, because typically he'd come in for me to lob some patsies, which he would smash, yelling "Get it, Get it, you" as I scurried around the clay, crashed into windscreens, and generally abased myself.
On this particular morning, though, he wanted it hard, so I kept drilling balls right into his raised racket until, Raskolnikov in tennis whites, I hit him cleanly in the throat.
He crumpled like a buck. I ran to the other side of the court where he lay moaning for a few moments, clay all over his shorts and vest. Finally I helped him up, apologizing effusively, feeling the tip I'd figured into my fortune palpably vanish before my eyes.
"That's not good fun," he said.
"Excuse me?" I said, dusting off his shoulder.
"That's not good fun," he repeated. Then he walked off and never played with me again.
Money didn't destroy my family but it certainly hastened the blaze. My father, after selling vacuum cleaners, Bibles, driving a bus, working in a library, and teaching junior high, decided to go to medical school when I was a child. I don't remember ever lacking things before that, or even feeling very "poor," though I know that at one time there were five of us living in a forty-foot trailer. I think of us, perhaps only with a nostalgia intensified by all that happened later, as happy.
My father set up a practice in the small town where he'd grown up, and the money poured in. He bought a motor home bigger than that first trailer, which he wrecked, an airplane, which he wrecked, a great big house, which the bank eventually reclaimed. We had nothing again, but it was a different kind of nothing, a scorched field in which it would take years for anything to grow.
Back in San Francisco after a year in Virginia and North Carolina, it takes me days to get used to the gleam. Partly that's because I've moved from a house on an island to a basement sublet in the Haight, a gloomy little cave from which I emerge every afternoon like a shocked troglodyte, blinded and hungry. But I've never been in a city that glitters like this one, or one that I've loved as much. A life here, though, the kind of life I want to lead, seems less and less possible.
Can money obliterate a place, drain it of its life even as it makes it more physically attractive, more productive, more comfortable? It would be disingenuous for me to lament the destruction of a certain kind of San Francisco culture, because I've never really known the city otherwise, but I believe my friends who have. "Living in this city," one of them told me recently over a bowl of Westlake minced beef soup, on a day so bright even my cave couldn't keep me inside, "is like being married to a beautiful stupid woman who can really cook." And who, he might have added, has begun to tell some of her more marginal and improvident lovers that it's time to think about moving on.
Having your chief passion divorced from your means of making money is at once liberating and crushing. It separates you from the steamrolling economy, by which our culture is defined and leveled. With some notable exceptions, such separation is necessary for the production of original art. It can also leave you quite vulnerable, though, and you may look up just in time to feel yourself being made part of the pavement. "No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," Samuel Johnson once said, a statement that it sometimes seems even the dullest of steamroll drivers knows, shouting it cheerfully as he chases you down the street. Johnson wasn't a poet, though, especially not in his poems.
Poetry is a special case, I think, and not simply because one can't make a living off of it directly. I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I've never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn't recognize as discipline. It is, though. It's the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It's the discipline of preparedness. Camus again: "There is dignity in work only when it is work freely accepted. Only idleness has a moral value because it can serve as a criterion by which to judge men. It is fatal only to the second rate."
When my grandmother died, we discovered she'd been living for almost thirty years on sixteen thousand dollars a year, roughly half of which she was giving away, mostly to her confused and thriftless grandchildren. At one point in my mid-twenties I lived for several months in her back yard, in the very trailer where I'd lived as an infant.
One afternoon an old high school girlfriend visited me. She'd married into a powerful Texas political family and spent a large part of the visit detailing for me and my grandmother her Houston mansion, the extravagant wedding, the honeymoon in Rome. At the time, when even sunlight seemed like a reproach to me, I felt acutely the ignominy of my circumstances. After she'd left, though, as I was getting ready to go back out to my trailer with its flood of books and unpublished poems, my grandmother, the one uncomplicated love of my life, put her hands on my shoulders to stop me. "Honey," she said, "you may be smarter than all of us put together, but you're dumb as a blue pig to sit listening to that gab."
The Walker Evans exhibit at the SFMOMA was too much for me to absorb in one visit, so I spent most of my time in the room containing portraits from the WPA project he did with James Agee, which resulted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It's a book I've never been able to read. The voluptuous, self-pleasuring quality of the prose seems to me altogether inappropriate and misguided. You can practically feel Agee pumping his fists and saying, "Subject Matter!"
It is the prose that's to blame, though. Evans' photographs are always aestheticized, but they retain a documentary quality, a feeling for reality, that Agee's language does not. That's not simply the nature of the medium. Evans believed in the necessity and inevitability of an individual style, that no artist could ever simply hold up a clear pane in front of reality, but a man who sneaks a camera onto a subway to eliminate all trace of "pose" is a man who also has a feeling for hard fact. Detached from Agee's captions, I've always found his WPA photographs quite moving.
But in that immaculate, sunlit museum, leaning close with all the other well-dressed and cosmopolitan people, I felt a similar coldness for the images that I've always felt for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The woman in the dress made from scraps of sacking, the young scruffy man whose handsomeness indicts anyone who would dare notice it: the context turned them into curiosities. What had seemed depth of character now seemed like a bourgeois notion of "soulfulness." After a while I felt the same sour look on my face, the same need for air, as when, at a dinner party with writers in New York once, when the conversation was about the ways in which one's work was both rooted in and hampered by one's past, a woman of means and cheekbones said, wistfully, "Poor people are so interesting."
I almost went to work at Citibank in London. That is, I thought about it for about three minutes. I would have been, I suppose, an investment banker, though I still can't quite imagine what that means besides having to wear a suit and read the business pages. I knew a top executive of Citibank's European operations. It was a tennis connection. Among a certain social set, tennis opens a lot more doors than intelligence.
He offered me the job as he was showing me around Hyde Park Corner, where he and his family lived when they weren't in New York or Switzerland. I was twenty-one, living in Oxford (though not, as he thought, actually attending Oxford), obsessed with poetry. That's what I told him, the poetry part, that I had no time for anything else. He stopped in the middle of the street and stared at me, trying to decide if I was serious. That's one thing I can be: SERIOUS. He clapped me on the shoulder and burst out laughing. All the way home, his arm around my shoulder familiarly as if we were on a debauch, he laughed and he laughed.
Money is beauty, money is sex, money is a party to which I've inexplicably been invited, wasabi roe and squab liver crostini, stock options like pheremones in the air, a ten million dollar house in Pacific Heights around which I wander with the discontented purity of a palace eunuch. Money is my father--crafty man, Odysseus of the desert--renting a truck at twenty-one and driving all night to New Mexico because, he's heard, the price of wood is so much lower there than in treeless west Texas that if he can just bring back a truckload he'll be, well, not rich maybe, but at least not broke, not fucking broke. Money is the dawn so full of promise, his blank fatigue, the axe that slips and lays his leg open to the bone. It's the hospital bill, the cleaning bill for the blood in the truck, the ticket he gets on the drive home. Power and terror, means and end, fat man in a Philadelphia bank who, after I've explained proudly that I've just paid off my last debt with a poetry prize, denies me a car loan for that reason, his oleaginous jowls jiggling ever so slightly as he says, "How else can we know you exist?": money is shit.
Dishevelled, disgusted, I leave my apartment in the middle of the morning to make a completely unnecessary trip to the post office, where I run into a former student, who looks glossy and prosperous enough to buy the entire postal service. She asks me if I'm teaching, and I say no. She asks me if I'm writing, and I say no. She says, "I guess you make plenty off of your book anyway."
I look at her sharply, but there's no trace of irony.
"Why yes," I say, smiling and nodding my head, suddenly in love with this city, myself, her. "It's good fun."
CHRISTIAN WIMAN's first book, The Long Home, won the 1998 Nicholas Roerich Prize and was published by Story Line Press. Recent work appears in the Atlantic Monthly, the London Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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